Nils Bunde is that mixture of pragmatic and imaginative that defines visionary business leadership.
“I’ve been fortunate to translate the disciplines of art and design into real-world business success,” he said.
Nils uses the objectivity and experience he’s earned over the course of his career to help people build repeatable, scalable and sustainable systems so their businesses grow and thrive. He specializes in working with organizations facing issues around growth or threats from outside competition.
“If you have a threat to your business, I work with you to uncover the threat and create a strategy to mitigate it,” said Nils. “I identify patterns and translate those patterns into revenue growth.”
If a business isn’t growing, it’s failing, and businesses stagnate for all sorts of reasons. Some find the answer by addressing their sales, for others it's branding, marketing or their product offering. For others, it's evolution. Even successful companies have to figure out how to respond to a changing world by changing themselves. Nils has seen firsthand what happens when a highly successful company refuses to let go of the past.
Blackberry called on Nils for help less than two years after the iPhone came out. Having once enjoyed 75 percent of the market, they were starting to realize what a real threat Apple had become. Nils worked with Blackberry for more than a year, encouraging them to examine their brand, what they were selling and how they were selling it. He provided recommendations on addressing not just Apple, but the changing market.
In the end, Blackberry’s leadership refused to take the action needed. They stayed in a world that cared about a phone’s keyboard long after the market had moved on to fall in love with the full phone face. Within a few years, Blackberry’s market share was less than 1 percent.
The Art and Science of Business
Born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Nils grew up fishing and spending time on the water. His neighborhood felt like a small town, but with all the advantages of a big city.
“It was just a great place to grow up,” he said. “It was a lot of fun, I was outdoors all the time. My parents gave me a fantastic childhood. My dad was a minister and my mom was a homemaker, so even though there wasn’t a lot of money, and I was the third kid of three, I always felt an abundance of love.”
Nils could have attended public high school, but he chose instead to work for his tuition and attend a private school where he was “by far, one of the poorest kids there.” While his friends wore Levis, Nils rocked plain-pocket J.C. Penney jeans. His friends drove their own Mercedes’ while Nils’s entire family shared a single, reliable Plymouth station wagon. Still, Nils never thought of himself as poor, or even lower middle class. He simply did his job at the Viking Village Smorgasbord, graduated, then continued working his way through college.
Nils graduated from Moorhead State University, now Minnesota State University in Moorhead. He started as an accounting major, moved over to business, then marketing before he discovered the art department.
“I was really fully immersed in the art program — painting, drawing, glassblowing, photography — and it was wonderful, it was fantastic,” said Nils. He was especially fond of glass blowing, because the creativity and the vision were so immediate. It required envisioning what you were going to create, then rapidly executing with quick decision-making. There was also an element of danger: “The first time you burn yourself is the last time you burn yourself.”
While Nils was soaking up as much art as he could, his dad told him to think about what he was going to do for a job once he graduated.
“My dad was a fascinating man. He was a minister, he got his doctorate in theology, and he also loved art. He had a small studio in the house where he painted and sculpted. The interesting thing is that my dad, who was so artistic, told me I had to get a job, I couldn’t just be an artist. So, I went into the design program, because I could be a graphic designer.”
As glassblowing had taught Nils to think quickly, the design program trained him to think critically. Even though it was an art program, the business lessons were everywhere.
Designing a Business
The day after he graduated, Nils packed up his car and headed for the big(ger) city.
“I wanted to get a job as a graphic designer. Minnesota actually has a very healthy design community, it’s just that I didn’t want to go back to where I grew up, I wanted to experience something new.”
The choice was between Chicago and New York City, but it was a fairly simple decision. Chicago was closer, it was less expensive, and his best friend had just landed an internship at a design firm there.
“While at first it was a little intimidating because it’s bigger, faster paced and grittier than Minneapolis, Chicago has an energy woven through it that I really like. There’s the subway rumbling underground, the L clattering above, amazing food and neighborhoods, beautiful parks, and the diversity of people was wonderful.”
Nils landed a job as a designer and worked for a few Chicago agencies over the course of six years. As he worked his way up the design ladder, he was bothered by the fact that once he landed a senior position, there wouldn’t be a whole lot to aspire to beyond that.
“I’d have to move to bigger and bigger agencies,” he said. “Or, and this is probably the defining moment for every entrepreneur, I figured if they can do it, I can do it.”
With a mix of a little bit of hubris and a lot of self-confidence, Nils founded Brainforest in the mid-1990s. When he started out, he was the sole employee. He quickly learned how to develop systems for the office, sales and marketing.
“I put together a marketing piece, a little booklet all about visualizing and realizing. If you can visualize it, you can realize it. If you visualize one thing, you may realize something that’s totally different, but interesting. I sent that out and I got seven clients within two months. Within three months I had hired my first person. Within the first year I’d hired five and it really grew pretty quickly. Although I knew I wasn’t the greatest designer, I knew how to hire great designers and scale the business beyond me.”
And that’s how Nils discovered he liked being a business owner more than he liked being a designer. Nils ran Brainforest for the next 20 years. His company survived the dot-com bust, 9-11 and the Great Recession, and kept on growing.
Around 2012, he started thinking about what to do next. He got an idea from a friend of his who would frequently visit family in Turkey and bring back the most delicious spices. Inspired, Nils started a spice company. He traveled to Turkey, set up relationships with suppliers and started figuring out supply chain logistics and retail.
“Everything’s a system,” he said.
Nils’s new venture soon turned into Spicewater, a better-for-you beverage made with spices like ginger, turmeric, cinnamon and mint. He hired a formulator, iterated different versions and built up a successful brand that he sold in 2018.
“I learned a lot about building a business and designing systems,” he said. “I traveled a lot. It was intense, and it was a lot of fun.”
Nils had been visiting Arizona fairly often and decided to move there permanently after selling Spicewater. He’s been working as a consultant ever since and last November got into a conversation with a friend who lives in the Pacific Northwest. After listening to Nils describe his search for his next big project, the friend suggested he talk to a guy named Jeff Rogers.
In December, Nils was in the Seattle area and met with someone else who suggested he talk to Jeff Rogers. The next day, Nils met with yet another person who, mid-conversation, suggested he meet with a friend of his —Jeff Rogers. Sensing a pattern, Nils reached out to Jeff and met with him, as well as two managing directors at OneAccord, John Kaminski and Brian Jorgenson. Nils liked what he found.
“There’s an integrity and a genuine authenticity these guys resonate with,” he said. “They’re not hiding anything, they’re not sugar coating, there’s no shiny gloss varnish. To me, they have a real, true level of integrity. It’s moving. It’s nice, especially having been in business all these years and having met people who were less than stellar, shall we say, and having had clients who lacked integrity, lacked ethics, who didn’t treat me well or my employees well. So, in this season of life, I’m going to work with people I like, trust and respect.”
That was it. Nils joined the team as a Principal.
Nils is that guy who found a job he loves so much, he does it for fun.
“I do like to work a lot,” he said. “I don’t think of it as work. I really like what I do.”
When he’s not working, Nils also enjoys swimming and biking — he used to put up with running enough to even do triathlons. He still enjoys fishing, plays word games, reads newspapers and, of course, cooks with Turkish spices.
OneAccord helps business owners meet their goals by not only laying out a plan of action, but walking alongside and guiding them through that plan to the finish line. This series highlights the people who make this possible.